Shadows from the Greater Hill

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Shadows from the Greater Hill is the name of a book of poetry by Tessa Ransford. Tessa Ransford’s Shadows From The Greater Hill is a poetic diary reflecting a year in the life of Edinburgh’s most famous landmarks, Arthur’s Seat.

Back in the good old days of 1987, The Ramsay Head produced paradisaically perfect hardback poetry books, well-presented and with such worth that poets simply had to raise their game if they were to be so-published.

The alternative as ever was the samizdat photocopied poetry pamphlet—still an option today—but as for the works of Auld Scotia's pre-internet publishing houses, they were handsome, bold and confidently addressed the world at large, because they stood atop one of the greatest historical publishing stories in the world, that of Edinburgh. Among those others published by The Ramsay Head, find:

  • Tessa Ransford, 4 books
  • Janet Caird, 2 books
  • Alice V. Stuart, 1 book
  • Douglas Gifford 1 book
  • Ruth D'Arcy Thompson, 1 book
  • Robert Louis Stevenson, 1 book
  • Eona MacNicol, 1 book
  • J. Derrick McClure, 1 book
  • Christopher Rush, 1 book
  • Allan Massie, 1 book
  • Joseph Mallord William Turner, 1 book
  • Robert Scott Morton, 1 book

The Ramsay Head in fact dates back to the 19th century, and continued an ancient tradition of local publishing for an international audience that has vanished in the last round of millenial globalisation.

Now, our blogs and print on demand offer world-wide publication but these publications are of no interest outside our small and consistently disappointed local markets. It seems so at least.

However, with The Ramsay Head we saw for example, J. Derrick McClure offer a title The Scots Language, back in 1980, discussing Developing Scots as a National Language / New Scots : The Problem / and A Scots Language Policy for Education. While there is certainly a place for publishing that makes a minimum in terms of politics or social comment, works like this which were published by The Ramsay Head for many decades, during which Scottish independence and Scottish language were hideously unfashionable and generally reviled, show that Scotland has a keen and vital tradition of activism through literature. Even in the face of government and social opposition and in spite the lack of public response, there have always been those who keep the water wings of the Scots leid pumped up, for each generation.

Books In Scotland magazine from The Ramsay Head (1970)

And The Ramsay Head also published Books In Scotland magazine (above), an early forerunner of the Scottish Books blog, and another important locus for literary news in the 1970s and 1980s.

Where have the magazines gone, by the way? They were erudite, critical in a way that has vanished entirely, beautifully made, widely read and valued above all by the country's literary admins, who without them, would have been more clueless than they already probably were.

By 'the magazines' I'm referring to the likes of these sair-missed pages:

  • Lines Review?
  • Chapman?
  • Akros?
  • Scottish Book Collector?

To retrun to Tessa Ransford, Shadows From The Greater Hill is a book of intense metaphysical speculation, or what is more commonly known as navel-gazing.

In fact alternating between her navel and the hill itself, Tessa Ransford manages little in between, and it is this unity which allows Shadows From The Greater Hill a narrative - that not often found in poetry - as the seasons pass and unwanted developments influence her life.

The poems in Shadows From The Greater Hill zig zag between the two with little to connect them.

So we go:

Darkness before dawn
and rain
encompassing within its sound
ourselves, the window ledges,
street and buildings,
cars, tree, grass, gate, wall.

To merge contendetly with:

Alone at night I search my mind
for a word on the page remembered
that never betrays,
a passage I once relied on
like daily bread,
a thought precisely expressed:
as I discover the plot
in which my part is played.

Imposing the calendar year upon the collection and the focus of the hill itself, is most wise. The collection is at its absolute best when attaining the fine heights of poetic expression possible when theme and concision meet, as in the July 1st entry:

Shadows from the greater hill
in early eastern light, project
upon the lesser slope, to fill
with dark its curves and hollowings —
as suddenly, without remark,
white gulls open huge black wings.

This is a metaphor which is read as easily as that in Philip Larkin’s High Windows. In fact it is not dissimilar. However it is not the single poems that make Shadows From The Greater Hill by Tessa Ransford a success, but the accumulated effect of the passing year, which seems to augment the verses’ power as the book progresses out of winter and back into the next winter.

It is poetry in its most common form and as most people understand it—highly romanticised, ethereal, and referencing imagined areas which exist between nature and the poet's soul, making of the trees, birds and grass a second expressive body from which words may bounce, carrying ideas tucked within their hopefully enveloping folds.

Tessa Ransford however avoids most of the autonomic matter which we may now expect from our poets, and this includes her body and any related self-esteem issues, and the weepy and melodramatic subjects of art and poetry themselves. It means that the collection is mellowed into a more sharply focused form of expression, unsullied by the input from creative writing classes.

The gulls and their fellows the geese feature large, as do the trees which have been transplanted to the hill and which stand ‘black, slim, sharp / at brave attention’. These two elements are recurrent over the changing of time and personality and offer the reader a core, and something to ground the poetry and make it a pleasure, as opposed to a drag.

Observe the arrival of winter on Tessa Ransford’s Arthur’s Seat (December 4th)

I closed my eyes
and lay down in sickness.
When I opened them
trees were grey and naked —
even the tall willow
that was green the day before.

What is great about this short extract is that it shows Tessa Ransford finally imagining herself as the hill itself. Tessa Ransford shows how the season changes above, around and within her and simultaneously describes herself changing and the dying of autumn as the one and the same sickness—a pure example of the person-within-envirnoment poetry that so many writers aspire to.